Walter Cotter served in the Navy during World War II. He came home, put himself through college on the G.I. Bill, and eventually becoming a well-regarded neurosurgeon.
His profession allowed him to put six kids through private school, including his son, Tom, who was studying pre-law at Ohio's Denison University when he dropped a horrifying bombshell.
“After that investment, of all that money, he finds out that I want to tell jokes about my penis to strangers in bars. He was not thrilled,” recalled Tom Cotter, who will headline Tacoma Comedy Club for five big sets April 10, 11 and 12.
“It was not something he could brag about. It wasn't a badge of honor,” he said. “But when I did 'The Tonight Show' he realized, finally, that I was not a wasted sperm. We grew up watching Johnny Carson religiously in our house. So he knew I wasn't a complete failure.
“My oldest brother is a colonel, so he is the favorite, of course. I'm still joke boy, and I know my place. But that's okay with me.”
The 50-year-old standup comedian is being somewhat facetious, of course. His star has been rising for a while, and he's been an especially hot commodity since he lasted the entire seventh season of NBC-TV's “America's Got Talent” in 2012.
He ultimately finished second to animal act Olate Dogs. But he's not bitter about it. “People always ask me that,” he said. “They think I went out that night and just started randomly kicking dogs, which is not the case. I've always loved dogs. That hasn't changed. I did draft Michael Vick to my fantasy football team the next day, but that was coincidental.
“'Britain's Got Talent' was won by a dog act that year, also. So it was the year of the dog, and I'm fine with it. In all honesty, I didn't expect the dog act or me to even be in the finals. I didn't think we'd make the top six. ... So the fact that we were the two standing there at the end, I was flabbergasted.”
Cotter only had 90 seconds to impress judges Howard Stern, Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne on the show, and thinks he benefited from the lightning round delivery he developed working Boston comedy clubs early in his career.
“The style of comedy's kind of a rapid-fire style,” he said. “It's for A.D.D. people. You're banging out a lot of jokes in a short amount of time, and so that's what I've always done. I added misdirection to that with just a lot of one-liners and left turns; double-entendre and misdirection, all those things. So my act was perfectly suited for that show; and for six years everyone – managers, agents, casting people – would call me every and say you've gotta go out to the show. It's perfect for you.”
He just had one hangup. “I wouldn't (try out) because Piers Morgan was a judge,” Cotter said, recalling the English pundit's penchant for trashing comedians. “With a British accent he'd say, 'You're not funny. I didn't laugh once. You're not original.' And not only would he not advance their careers, but he would set them back in front of millions of people. So I said, 'I'm not gonna let this snobby British (jerk ruin) me in front of the world.'”
Cotter may be best known for “America's Got Talent,” but some of his earliest accolades came 20 years ago here in the Pacific Northwest. He took first place in the Seattle International Comedy Competition in 1994, something that might not have happened had his geography been any worse.
“I probably shouldn't be telling people this, but the truth is, I'm a moron,” he said. “I was going to a wedding in San Francisco – and I'm an East Coast Guy (so) I thought I could drive. I thought it was like an hour away.
“It was a surreal thing because it was at a time when the grunge thing that was big. … One night you'd be in a basement in Seattle with a bunch of people wearing tie dyes and Birkenstocks sandals. They had just come in off the street from getting stoned. The next night you'd be at a Naval sub base, so it would be a completely different demographic. Some of the guys were doing the exact same set for both audiences, and I couldn't believe they weren't mixing it up a little bit.
“So that's what I remember learning from that. You play to your audience.”
Cotter's set times in Tacoma are at 8 p.m. on April 10 and 8 and 10:30 p.m. on April 11 and 12. Tickets are $10 for the April 10 show and $15 for the others. For further details, call (253) 282-7203 or visit http://www.tacomacomedyclub.com.